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Secret weapon in hunt for nuclear smugglers

Officers and experts are trained to use forensic evidence to detect radioactive material. © ITU
Officers and experts are trained to use forensic evidence to detect radioactive material. © ITU

Clad in white radiation suits with triple layer-gloves, police and nuclear experts carefully probe the debris of an amateur dirty bomb.

There’s no need for alarm however, it’s not a nuclear emergency, but a typical afternoon at EUSECTRA, the new European Nuclear Security Training Center at the Institute for Transuranium Elements (ITU) near Karlsruhe in Germany.

‘The new thing here in the hands-on training in nuclear detection and measuring techniques is that we can combine modern instrumental techniques with access to a broad range of nuclear materials,’ said Dr Klaus Mayer, who leads the forensic analysis and the combating of illicit trafficking activities at the ITU, part of the EU’s in-house research service the Joint Research Centre.

‘These are not just radioactive materials, but nuclear materials: uranium and plutonium in a range of lower and more highly enriched forms.’

Within the last decade, detection efforts have turned up nuclear and other radioactive materials for instance in scrap metal in Rotterdam Harbour, the Netherlands, and in Hennigsdorf, Germany, and within the last two decades, more than 40 cases of seized nuclear materials have been analysed at ITU.

Dirty bomb

Trainers at ITU simulate different scenarios including the accidental spillage during the assembly of a ‘dirty bomb’ and then classify the exact isotopic composition of plutonium, even to the degree of being able to identify its probable source. These are important elements of the training.

‘We teach them how to take classical forensic evidence where there might be a risk of contamination, how to prevent cross-contamination of radiation, and how to protect themselves whilst simultaneously taking forensic samples,’ Dr Mayer said.

At ITU, government employed front-line officers and experts are taught how to detect and respond to illicit trafficking of nuclear and other radioactive materials.

Within the grounds of the new compound, a variety of mock-ups use security gates for vehicles, typical of border crossings or ports. Indoors, trainers have reconstructed a mock-up airport, including the security gate area. Though relatively new, the monitors – which detect minute amounts of radioactive or nuclear materials – are already in use in a number of European airports.

‘We can combine modern instrumental techniques with access to a broad range of nuclear materials.’

Dr Klaus Mayer, head of forensic analysis at the Institute for Transuranium Elements

Security officers are first taught to distinguish a real alarm from what they call an innocent alarm, which is one caused by radiation from natural or legal sources. Lorries filled with potassium-rich bananas, fertilisers, ceramics, medical supplies, or passengers who have had thyroid treatments, can all trigger innocent alarms for radioactivity.

If the alert is genuine, this is the beginning of the harder work: ascertaining whether the material is from an industrial or medical source – since radioactive elements have many applications – or whether it is a rogue supply.

Using specially designed state-of-the-art glove boxes, the fissile metals can be safely manipulated and analysed.

Training remains one of the key priorities of the ITU, according to its director Professor Thomas Fanghänel. Especially since the threat from smuggling and proliferation is still there, and the risks remain unclear.

‘It is definitely an issue, and we do not know how many cases actually exist. Maybe what we know is just the tip of the iceberg,’ he said, adding: ‘One thing is clear, we have to develop methodology, techniques and infrastructure in order to prevent, to detect and to respond.’ 

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